In the fall of 1996, Erykah Badu – still largely unknown at the time — just finished recording her debut album, Baduizm, which came out on Feb. 11, 1997 and ushered in a new genre, neo soul. The style of which was inspired by “a love for ‘70s music,” Badu tells ET and would be proliferated by the likes of D’Angelo, Jill Scott, Maxwell and Lauryn Hill and define R&B in the mid-to-late-‘90s.
Two decades later, it feels as if those artists are back on top again with A Tribe Called Quest, who blurred the lines of hip-hop and R&B, at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 with We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service and the re-emergence of D’Angelo, who surprised fans with the release of Black Messiah in late 2014. Hill, who after missing her surprise performance at the GRAMMYS, made up for it with epic duet with The Weeknd on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. Then, of course, there are the likes of John Legend, Solange and Alicia Keys, all of whom have deep roots in soul and released new albums this year.
“It makes sense chronologically,” says Badu, who earlier this month hosted the Soul Train Awards, which will air on BET and Centric Nov. 27. “A lot of those people who are making things re-manifest were babies. This is what inspired them.”
“The same thing happened with me,” she continues, referring to the music that came out three decades prior to her debut album, which took “my whole life to make.” But when looking at that time, Badu says, “I felt like there was nothing like I was getting ready to put out. I was excited about the possibilities.”
While the ‘70s largely influenced Baduizm, it was Brandy — the 2016 recipient of the Lady of Soul Award and Badu’s favorite performance of the evening — who provided an unexpected source of inspiration. “She inspired a lot of things about Baduizm because her album had come out before I finished mine,” Badu says, referring to the singer’s self-titled debut, which featured the hits “Baby” and “I Wanna Be Down.” “Just musically, production-wise and the writing, it was really good. And I hadn’t heard anything else like it.”
In the two decades since her debut, Badu has released four studio albums and one live album to critical acclaim, while exploring genres beyond soul and R&B. “I’m not answering to the label of music at all,” Badu says. “I just want people to create from the place where the ideas originate. I want people to continue to tell their stories no matter what the genre is — because right now, we really, really need it. What we really, really need right now is the spirit of creating and sparking ideas.”
The Soul Train Awards, featuring performances by Brandy, Badu and others, will air Sunday, Nov. 27 at 8 p.m. ET on BET and Centric.